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Feature Article


Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog

Beverly in the Depression

When the New York Stock Market crashed in October 1929, it sent shock waves around the world, triggering a global economic depression. By 1931, as many as 14,000 Edmontonians were supported by direct government relief - a ratio of about 17 per cent.

With its coal and meat packing economy directly tied to production and manufacturing, sectors hit hard by falling commodity prices, Beverly took the brunt of the economic collapse. In 1931, coal miners made 50 cents a day and worked a 14 hour shift but by the following year, more than a third of the town's workforce was out of work. A provincial study revealed that by the end of the 1930s, many Beverly families had been on welfare more than ten years.

In an attempt to turn the fortunes around, town council jumped at an opportunity to gain some royalties from the sale of coal and provide employment for its poverty-stricken populace. That was the start of the Beverly Coal Mine.

Beverly Limited was formed in 1931 as a cooperative under municipal sponsorship. At a special meeting July 17, 1931, councillors voted to accept an offer from Beverly Limited to mine the coal owned by the town for 35 cents a ton and a minimum royalty payable on five tons within the first fiscal year.

But Beverly Limited led a troubled existence right from the beginning. To finance the venture, the town borrowed money from the province, but those funds were soon exhausted and so the municipality paid wages in the form of vouchers redeemable at local stores. But store owners were leery of these vouchers and one storekeeper, called Mitchell, said that he would "paper his parlour" with the certificates, such was their value.

In the dark days of the Depression, ominous signs continued to mount, showing that the mine was in deep financial trouble. When Beverly Limited declared bankruptcy in early 1933, 120 jobs were thrown to the wind and shareholders were threatened with zero return on their investment.

On May 2, 1933 a special meeting of council heard from men contending discrimination in the mine and refuting the allegation they are "agitators to the detriment of the mine in the community." The unrest swelled, the RCMP intervened and the situation threatened to get even uglier. A reorganization package was eventually hammered out with a fair wage clause and a commitment to hire at least 60 per cent of the workforce from Beverly.

In the depths of the Depression, with hundreds of Beverly residents out of work and with no visible means of support, local churches and merchants dug in to help out. Typical of the generosity of the time was that shown by United Church Minister Rev. J.T. Stephens, who sought funds and clothing to assist those in dire need and, on many occasions, emptied his own pantry to feed those without food.

By 1936, Beverly's finances were in shambles. With practically no income, the town was just piling up more debt, issuing more relief slips to its needy citizens, vouching for school services it couldn"t afford.

The Alberta government prepared to step in and assume control. An emergency meeting of town council produced the following resolution: "Resolved that we vigorously protest the arbitrary and unwarranted action of the Provincial Government in invading the time honoured rights of Municipal self government by the notification of the impending appointment of an Administrator."

The province agreed to give the town one more year to get its finances in order. Acting on legal advice, council pushed ahead to sue the Beverly Limited Mine for $30,000 for breach of contract. But the town lost the suit and, with court costs added to the equation, the total cost was $6,299 " and that broke the town. The town's deficit jumped from $27,244.36 in 1936 to $31,244.92 in 1937.

The council, defiant right to the end, passed a motion at their penultimate meeting January 29, 1937 requesting the province to "declare a three or four-year moratorium on all interest and public debts. This would enable the municipality to get on their feet. Unlike the present arrangement the taxpayers of Beverly are compelled to meet a 50-year debenture debt which, when paid, would amount to three times the original debt. This makes it utterly impossible for the taxpayers to meet their obligations."

The plea apparently had no impact as, just a few days later, Nicholas Rushton, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs, was appointed the town's administrator. He assumed the helm February 17, 1937.

"Good morning, gentlemen. I am the new administrator," the record shows Rushton greeting council that historic day. "Please hand over the books, cash and accounts."

A royal commission into the town's affairs was launched, amidst allegations of misappropriated funds. However those allegations were never proven in court.

The wrangling over the town's affairs shone the spotlight on municipal governance and, in 1938, the Beverly Electors Association was formed to protect citizens" rights. As the town hobbled along under the watchful eye of the provincial "Big Brother," work at the one remaining mine and the nearby packing plants " Swifts, Burns, Canada Packers " also helped cash-strapped residents put food on the table.

But still there just wasn"t enough work to go around and many families packed up and left. Between 1931 and 1941, Beverly's population as tabulated by the Dominion Census, tumbled from 1,111 to 981.

By the end of the 1930s, the town, under the administrator, was reported to be "living within its income." When the Second World War broke out, many Beverly citizens volunteered to serve, as they had in the Great War nearly 25 years earlier. This time, the price paid was not quite so dear; five Beverly residents died from injuries suffered during WWII.

The hope that washed across the country in the days after the war was soon to be felt in Beverly. For a coal mining town that had lost its mines, struggled without an industrial base and endured a lack of modern services, the best was yet to come.

Information for this article compiled with the assistance of the staff at the City of Edmonton Archives and the Beverly History Committee. Excerpts from "Built on Coal: A History of Beverly, Edmonton's Working Class Town," written by Lawrence Herzog and published by the Beverly Community Development Society.

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